As popular seasonal songs go, Mariah Carey’s high-octane body-shaker, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, is certainly among the more memorable of the recent cluster even if, in thought, word and deed, its also one of the more obvious. Nodding at Wizzard’s meaty glam-stomp, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Mariah’s multi-layered pop whopper, first released in November, 1994, sits astride a formidable bells-whistles-and-more bells production that, as usual, showcases her powerful pipes and mighty vocal range. In this respect, its long been popular with your local karaoke champion who may, one time, have featured on ‘The Voice Of Ireland’ and who’s loudly dominated any staff event since, flaunting the capacity of their lungs like a balloon blowing entertainer at a pre-schooler’s birthday party.
Which isn’t to demean ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ even if, to these ears, its just far too jolly and straight-forward to in any way capture the heart of what is easily the darkest of all the seasons. As an unreconstructed music snob, I steadfastly hold the view that the best and most powerful Christmas songs are also the saddest and most subtle of the kind. And to this end and for what it’s worth, my own personal favourites are ‘Family Life’ by The Blue Nile – by a distance the most gut-wrenching song ever written – ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell from her remarkable 1971 album, ‘Blue’ [which also features a Joni original called ‘Carey’] and this year’s ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ by St. Vincent, which is as malicious as it is a spectacular hybrid of both. But I’ll just as merrily bat for Mariah because, unlikely as it seems, we have form.
I’ve made numerous television programmes over the last twenty-five years and, wherever possible, I’ve tried to consistently support new and established bands and musicians, be that on the fringes of the schedules in specific music shows and children’s television strands or on the bigger, more high-profile chat and entertainment strands. I’m one of those who believes that – and there are others in my trade who might disagree – when used properly and respectfully, music can elevate any programme up a level, even the most listless.
I’ve written previously about the presenter and journalist, Pat Kenny, and particularly his interest in, and his career-long support, for music of all hues. I worked as Pat’s producer on the RTÉ One chat shows ‘Kenny Live’ and ‘The Late Late Show’ for several years from 1998 onwards and, during that time, we booked the widest span of music we could. Some of those entertainment bookings, and over which we often agonised, were frequently among my own personal highlights and many of those performances have lingered far longer and deeper in my mind than much of the more fleeting, low-end celebrity-skewed fluff we’d also trot out.
Leading those bigger, broader-focused shows puts you on an absolute hiding to nothing and thickens your skin quickly. The size and diversity of the audiences, even still, and the demands of those audiences, means that you’re often damned if you do and you’re even more damned if you don’t. In the best traditions of Ireland at large, everyone else knows exactly how to do a better and more effective job than you and isn’t too slow to remind you.
But those shows can often be terrific fun to work on too, largely because of the frankly absurd situations that regularly go with the territory and the dark humour that tends to under-pin the background teams who backbone these strands and keep them afloat. I fundamentally disagreed with Pat on many things over the years and reluctantly signed off on some of the bookings we made through gritted teeth. But over time I learned how to clinically poison my own prejudices – for better and, often, for worse – and put my personal leanings into cold storage for the sake of what I felt was a broader good.
Our music bookings were handled by a couple of formidable, practical and experienced operators who were as committed to their work as they were passionate, connected and knowledgeable about their music and who’d bring all manner of stuff to the table. While I’d routinely get giddy over an artist or a performer I knew and liked, I learned over the years to assess such things with a broad perspective: or, in other words, learned to admit whenever I was wrong, which was often. I know now, for instance, that there are fewer greater privileges in life than just sitting there, a matter of feet away, while the traditional singer Seán Keane rehearses a fully live version of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, supported by a small ensemble of top-end players. Or in watching Paul Brady work his way through another skilfully-woven original with some of the best session musicians in the country, all of them working a groove.
I enjoyed many such moments over the years when, during afternoon rehearsals on the floor of Studio 4 in Montrose, I was able to kick back for a few minutes, hide from the chaos, switch my mobile off and, from a seat in the bleachers, marvel at the artistry on the sound-stages wondering if I was actually working at all ? An unlikely vocal performance or an unscripted diversion during camera rehearsals and soundchecks were often enough to make my week and I hope that any musician or performer we invited in felt that we genuinely respected whatever it was they may have been trying to do.
Some of those performances are, of course, more indelible than others, and betimes for the off-beat carry-on that surrounded them in a trade not renowned for reliability. During Pat’s last year on ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/99, we hosted a full-live Meat Loaf performance which was as mammoth an undertaking as you’d expect and which we carried off, I think, with no little aplomb. The backing band’s equipment ran the length of the performance area to the right of the studio as I looked on from the cheap seats: indeed, so much hardware was rolled into the studio that we had to specially extend the sound-stage and eat into some of the other aspects of the set.
But with a mighty in-house sound-crew working hand-in-hand with the visitors, Meat Loaf literally raised the roof: not since those sulphurous nights a decade previously, when Charles Haughey regularly locked horns with Brian Farrell on ‘Today Tonight’, had the studio building in Donnybrook witnessed such a whiff of raw, undiluted menace.
As tends to be the case on some of those bigger state visits, I was rolled out to formally greet Meat himself after he landed in the reception area and he was every bit the gentleman I imagined, warmly taking my hand and sincerely thanking us for hosting him. His career was again on a steady up-swing after several years spent, in many respects, in the wild and during which, wheelchair bound, he famously under-took a bizarre three-week tour of some of Ireland’s most remote ballrooms and local halls.
Caught deep in a critical and commercial sewer, and flogging a spectacularly dire album called ‘Blind Before I Stop’, Meat Loaf spent the guts of a month on Ireland’s provincial circuit in 1989, far from the arenas and stadia in towns as remote as Moate in County Westmeath and scanty villages like Dundrum, in Tipperary, where he headlined at The Golden Vale Ballroom. Playing largely to the line dancing set, he rammed every hall he headlined and, by all accounts, barely made it alive out of some of them.
This chapter of Meat Loaf’s long, varied and loud story, during which his audiences had clearly became more selective, if no less passionate, was touched on by Pat Kenny in a terrific interview that same night but is covered in far more detail in an excellent post by Ronan Casey that’s well worth your time and attention.
We did a fully live Frames performance that same year when the band fetched up to perform ‘Pavement Song’ and, again, with an entire studio team on the one page working closely with the band and their crew, and with an excellent director just going for it, created three epic minutes that I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye. Cinerama too, featuring another of my many heroes, David Gedge of The Wedding Present, also checked in and did a gorgeous version of ‘Hard, Fast And Beautiful’ from their first album, ‘Va Va Voom’. And, after the singer had flirted as usual with the higher reaches of his register, straining to tip them one-by-one, the band took the applause of the studio audience, promptly began to dismantle its back-line and carried it back out to their tour bus in jig time. Like most of those we hosted on campus in Montrose, they were travelling light, with the minimum of fuss and without either the fanfare or the flash.
And then there was Mariah.
By March, 1999, Mariah Carey was easily one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’d enjoyed a dozen or so chart-topping singles in the U.S. alone, was prime tabloid fodder and her rags-to-riches back-story – she had, apparently, thrown herself at the mogul who signed her, later married him and, along the way, had radically transformed herself physically – was already well worn. The New York-born singer was in Ireland for the best part of a week, during which she was combining promotional duties for her latest single, a basic enough knock-off of the syrupy Brenda K. Starr song, ‘I Still Believe’, while apparently tracing down aspects of her mother’s family line.
The daughter of an American-Irish mother and an African-Venezuelan father, Carey’s family line stretches back, on her mother’s side, to the Hickey and Egan families of Cork and, perhaps with that in mind, the singer was offered to the ‘Kenny Live’ programme for a performance and an interview. Which we committed to tape on Monday morning, March 8th, 1999, for broadcast on our live show the following Saturday night.
Carey was trailed incessantly by the media and a myriad of assorted hangers-on from the moment she landed in Dublin and was hounded in time-honoured fashion whenever she left the swanky city centre hotel in which she was billeted. Much of which, to my mind, was carefully and deliberately stage-managed. Her retinue was enormous and, from what we’d heard from our snouts in the press corps, resembled a travelling freak show. On the morning she fetched up in RTÉ, we saw proof of that close-up.
Although we’d been tic-tacking in granular detail with Mariah’s record company for the best part of a month beforehand, and were long familiar with many of the more celebrated vagaries of the entertainment business, the general hullabaloo that surrounded her even took the more hardened and cynical of us by surprise.
I took my first call of the day shortly after 7AM on the morning of the record: one of Mariah’s cortege was concerned that our campus wouldn’t be big enough to take the fleet of limousines and customised vans that were set to land in Donnybrook. The tone and the bar had been set early.
We were eventually deluged by the single biggest support crew I have ever seen accompany any one performer, from security, media handlers and personal assistants to stylists, production personnel and record company flunkeys. In all, and bearing in mind she was about to completely mime her song, barely open her mouth and was performing without a band, there must have been at least twenty of them, three of whom were backing vocalists and many of whom looked like they were trying hard to make work for themselves.
And yet for all the pantomime, their primary concern was far more pointed: the studio lighting. For the duration of the forty odd minutes Mariah spent on the studio floor, her personal lighting director sat in the production gallery upstairs with his eyes set on the exposure levels: at his request, we pushed all of the lamps to the point of almost white-out. Carey’s representatives also requested sight of the director’s shooting script – a not entirely unfamiliar ask, although unusual enough – and, after even more consultation, we agreed to keep all shots looser than we normally would. The performance features not a single close-up of the star turn.
I’d met Mariah very briefly after she’d alighted from the back of a high-powered, blacked-out van that had parked up outside our studio building and, in her tracksuit and with minimal make-up, looked as regular as anyone. In behind the Olympic level of corporate codology and away from the supporting madness was someone of roughly my own age, late 20s, with what was clearly a terrific voice and who, at one level, must have been utterly mind-spun by the circus by which she was engulfed. For which, of course, she was picking up the tab.
What should have been a relatively quick-and-easy studio shoot became an elaborate, overly-fussy drama job: if Mariah’s hairdresser sprung in from side-stage once and delayed the recording, he did so at least ten times, spray can and combs in hand, carefully sculpting an imaginary stray wisp back into place. Earning his corn and his spot in the squad. In the circumstances, I thought that Pat pulled a decent interview from her, or at least as good as, swarmed by the branding police, we were ever really going to get. She spoke eloquently and well about her family background, her mother and the various difficulties she’d encountered growing up in New York, before launching back into auto-pilot. And the odd time, you know, I detected a real warmth from the kid: even at that point in her career, she was simply that. A kid.
And then, with ten minutes of chat on the clock, and with her over-eager body of alickadoos pointing at their watches and intruding on our floor manager, we wrapped it up and wound it all down: Mariah and her entourage were gone within minutes. Off, no doubt, to a hotel or an airport or another lay-over in Dubai, Doha or Dallas.
Once we’d eventually seen the last of them off the premises, and once the hire-cars had all pulled away from the concourse, a small group of us made for the upstairs room we’d decorated to spec for our guest. Buried in among the freshly pressed towels and the flowers, and beyond an air that was hung thick with lotions, potions and hair spray, we uncorked the bottle of Cristal champagne put aside for Mariah by her record company and that she’d left untouched.
We belted into it like savages.